Cleansers - Skin Care Guide

Posted by Dr Davin Lim on

Best Ingredients: Squalene, surfactants

Adjunctive Treatments: Addition of chemical exfoliants

Worse Ingredients: Apricot seeds, fruit seeds, sulphates

Tips: Twice a day cleansing, double cleanse in the evening


What is the science of cleaning?


Remember your mother telling you to wash your face? Well, there is scientific evidence backing up this essential task. Here are 3 main points as to the importance of washing your face correctly.

  1. Face washing removes build up of sebum (oil), impurities such as dirt, environmental oils (think cooking), make up &, sunscreen.
  2. Washing your face can improve skin clarity, skin turnover & allow skin care actives including vitamins, skin care acids, pigment correctors & antioxidants work harder.
  3. The cleansing process primes the skin so that it’s natural regenerative processes can be optimised. This removes dead compressed skin cells known as keratinocytes.
  4. Additionally the action of putting your hands on your skin and massaging increases blood flow, which immediately plumps up the skin and makes it look more rejuvenated.


How do I choose a cleanser?


There are many types of facial cleansers to choose from, depending on your skin type. As a guide-


Oil cleansers


Skin Type: Most skin types

An oil cleanser is a gentle way of removing pore-clogging debris,including waterproof makeup-without drying your skin. Ideal as the first step in double cleansing.


Foam Cleansers


Skin Type: Oily & combination skin

Foam cleansers are lightweight cleansers. These cleansers are initially dispensed as a cream or gel, changing to a foamy lather when mixed. This type of cleanser removes excess oil as effectively as gel cleansers.


Gel cleansers

Skin type: Oily & combination skin

These cleansing gels are ideal for deep cleansing & decongesting pores. They remove excess oil, dirt, & impurities & provide mild exfoliation.


Cream cleansers

Skin type: Dry to sensitive skin, rosacea prone skin

These cleansers are thick & creamy, & as the name suggests are ideal for sensitive skin. Ideal for people who suffer from rosacea or dermatitis. They provide cleansing without stripping the skin of it’s natural protective oils.


Clay cleansers

Skin type: Oily & combination skin

Known for their absorbing power, clay cleansers purify your skin by drawing out excess oil and toxins from your pores.


Bar cleansers

Skin type: Oily & combination skin

New bar cleansers are very different from ‘soap’ and suds rich cleansers of the past. They are often pH balanced & some contain moisturizing ingredients including essential oils & glycerin.


Micellar Water

Skin type: Sensitive & Dry skin, rosacea patients

Micellar water cleansers have a suspension of oil droplets in soft water. These oils attract oil, sebum, dirt, sunscreen, & makeup. Another great thing about them: You don’t need to rinse them off with water.

Sensitive skin care

Powder Cleansers

Skin Type: Oily & sensitive skin

These cleansers—powdery soft when dry—dissolves into a creamy concoction upon contact with water, thoroughly cleansing your skin while providing gentle exfoliation.


Cleansing Cloths Or Sponges

Skin type: Oily & combination skin

There are cleansing wipes, mitts and sponges. These cleansers are made with special fibers and don’t typically require the use of any traditional cleansers—to thoroughly remove impurities while also sloughing off dead skin cells. A few examples are muslin cloths, kassa/kessa mitts & cleaning sponges. 


What ingredients should I look for in a facial cleanser?

The best ingredients will depend on your skin type & skin care goals.

For acne-prone or oily skin, look for an exfoliating cleanser with retinol or salicylic acid. For dry or sensitive skin, choose a cleanser rich in emollients. These compounds help to reduce the amount of moisture lost from the skin. Examples of emollient ingredients include petrolatum, lanolin, squalene, mineral oil and ceramides. Humectants are similar to emollients as they help reduce water loss, aiding in moisture retention. Examples of these include propylene glycol, glycerin & hyaluronic acid.


What is double cleansing?

Double cleansing as the name suggests involves using two different types of cleansers, one right after the other. Most commonly, an oil based cleanser, balm, exfoliant face scrub, or cleansing cloth provides the first clean, followed with a regular, water-soluble cream, gel, or lotion cleanser that’s suitable for your skin type.


Why oil based as the first cleanse? Oils are adept at dissolving many types of makeup, breaking down sebum (skin’s natural oils) and can also help remove sunscreen residue. The oils work differently from the surfactants found in  facial cleansers. Modern cleansing oils contain an emulsifier. This allows the oil to mix with water making it easy to rinse from skin instead of leaving a greasy residue as pure oils can.


Should you double cleanse your skin?

Double cleansing isn’t a deal breaker for most skin types, however, it can be useful under certain circumstances. An example is if you wear  transfer-resistant makeup as well as high residue physical sunscreens (think zinc oxide). By double cleansing this will remove both the makeup and the sunscreen, which allows  leave-on skincare actives to work better.  Patients with oily skin can also benefit from using two relatively gentle cleansers instead of one harsh exfoliant. Double cleansing in this context can remove more oil, sebum & dirt compared to a single clean cycle.


When and how do I double cleanse?

The best time to double cleanse is in the evening. Most dermatologists would suggest you do not require double double cleansing (namely am and pm) as this can strip your skin of it’s natural oils, leading to skin irritation. Here are the steps involved with double cleaning-

  1. Dispense your cleansing oil based product & apply it to your hand, mixing well. Massage this solution on your face for a minute before washing off). Wipes or cloths are other methods of providing the initial cleanse.
  2. Rinse or gently remove the cleanser with a soft, wet washcloth.
  3. Next, dispense a small amount of your regular water based facial cleanser and apply it to damp skin, massaging in gentle circular motions. Rinse the second cleanser and pat your skin dry with a clean, soft towel. This second phase removes the residual oil based cleanser as well as adding another layer of removal for dead skin cells & residue.
  4. From there you can start your evening skin care actives, or apply your moisturizer of choice.


What skin type should be extra cautious when double cleansing?

Patient’s with sensitive skin, such as rosacea or even inflammatory acne should be extra cautious when performing double cleaning. A non-abrasive cleanser should be used- ideally one cleaning cycle. La Roche Posay, Avene & Dermatologica manufacture special products for super sensitive skin types.


How often should I cleanse my face?


No more than twice a day, this includes people with oily skin. Frequently cleansing can stip your skin’s natural protectant barriers, leading to inflammation & irritation. For people who suffer from oily skin, more frequent cleaning often leads to a rebound in oil production.


Sensitive skin guide

What are exfoliant cleansers?


The cleansers can be divided into chemical & physical exfoliating cleansers. Chemical cleansers include alpha hydroxy acids such as glycolic or lactic acid, & or beta hydroxy acids such as salicylic acid. Physical exfoliation consists of fine particles of apricot seeds that function in the same way as microdermabrasion. Exfoliating cleansers help remove the outer dead layer of skin known as the stratum corneum including any residual oil, dirt & makeup.


Exfoliation is tricky, especially if you suffer from sensitive skin AND you are using powerful skin care actives. If you have oily, congested or resistant skin, exfoliating twice to three times a week is sensible. Do not combine physical and chemical exfoliation in the one sitting.


Should you exfoliate or cleanse first?

By cleansing first you help remove dirt, sebum (oil) and make up off skin's surface. This leaves a clean base to then exfoliate away dead skin cells. If you are considering double cleansing, your first cleanse can be with an exfoliant, followed by a water based gentle cleanser. The absolute order of cleansing before exfoliation is a controversial one as it depends on your skin’s sensitivity.



What are squalene based cleansers?


Squalene based cleansers are water based formulations used for makeup removal as well as functioning as a multipurpose cleanser. Squalane is efficient in dissolving makeup, dirt, & sebum.  Being non-comedogenic and soap-free, this formula is designed to be gentle enough for daily use, without over-drying the skin, making it suitable for all skin types.


What are the best cleansers for acne prone skin?


The first step in your anti acne skin care routine is to clean away the excess oil and impurities clogging your pores. Look for ingredients that exfoliate the skin, soothe inflammation & acne-causing bacteria.

The key to fighting acne is actually about finding the right balance between cleansing, exfoliation & skin hydration. This depends on your skin type. Hydrating and  antiinflammatory cleansers, which won’t irritate or strip the skin, are best for dry & sensitive skin types. This includes patients who are on retinoids such as Differin or Accutane/ Oratane/ Isotretinoin. Whereas exfoliating cleansers and treatments that rid the skin of excess oil or sebum can be highly effective for those with oily skin types that don’t suffer from sensitivity.

Exfoliants are often incorporated into many anti-acne cleansers because of their ability to clear pores of built-up sebum, dirt and bacteria. Exfoliating agents are often found in the form of chemical exfoliants, such as:

  • Salicylic Acid, a beta-hydroxy Acid (BHA). Due to its low molecular size & oil solubility, Salicylic Acid can deeply penetrate into the oil gland to remove dead skin cells and other impurities and debris.
  • Glycolic Acid, & lactic acids are alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA). These are more effective than Salicylic Acid at exfoliating the surface of the skin, improving the skin’s texture and boosting its brightness.

Other acne cleansing products contain ingredients that can reduce inflammation & kill acne forming bacterium. These include- Tea tree oil, Charcoal, Witch Hazel & Kaolin Clay.


What are the best cleansers for oily skin?

While we naturally produce oil in order to keep our skin soft and supple, too much of it results in that uncomfortable greasy & shiny look. Oily skin or seborrhoea occurs when your sebaceous glands go into overdrive. This can lead to enlarged pores, congestion & acne. While you can’t change your genetics, you can minimize the appearance of oily skin by using specific skin-care products including washes, lotions & creams. The goal is not to strip the skin of its oil supply.  In fact, if you do that, it will lead to worsening acne and paradoxical increase in oil production, as the dryness will send a signal to the skin to make even more sebum to compensate. Balance is the key. Here are some helpful tips-

  • Cleanse twice a day, any more and it will affect your skin’s barrier function.
  • Look for ingredients that include ceramides & squalene as emollients
  • Look for washes that contain low concentrations of salicylic acids (2% or less)
  • Look for ingredients that contain charcoal, clay & kaolin
  • Use oil free cleansers (needless to say)
  • Consider physical exfoliators such as sensible once daily Clarisonic


What is the best cleanser for rosacea & sensitive skin?

 Facial cleansing is important to remove impurities, sebum, make up & sunscreen. For rosacea prone skin, most people prefer a non-soap based cleanser (unless you are oily as well). As a guide-


  • Dry to normal or combination skin. A wide range of non-soap cleansers is available, including a number of options developed specifically for sensitive or redness-prone skin.
  • Very dry skin. A creamy, low-foaming, non-soap cleanser may be ideal for skin that's very dry — these types of formulas often leave behind a thin film that helps skin hold moisture.
  • Oily skin. For very oily skin, wash with a mild soap, taking care to avoid scrubbing. Aggressive rubbing or over-cleansing can irritate skin. I do not recommend exfoliant cleansers that contain high concentrations of glycolic or lactic acids. A minority of rosacea patients can tolerate very low concentrations of salicylic acid, as this can be anti-inflammatory.

Recommended companies that manufacture great products for rosacea patients include La Roche Posay, Neutrogena, Avene, Ego & Dermatologica. Cleansing tips for rosacea prone patients include-

  1. Do not over do it. Twice a day face washing is enough. Any more and skin irritation will ensure.
  2. Using your fingertips, wash skin with a cleanser suitable for your skin type. Avoid using an form of exfoliation, this includes physical & chemicals (eg. AHAs, BHAs)
  3. Rinse away cleanser with tepid water. Hot or cold water may cause flushing or irritation. Remember face washing and bathing should be quick & cool for rosacea patients.
  4. Gently dab your face dry with a cotton towel. Don't rub skin, as this may cause irritation. Dab don’t rub!
  5. Since stinging most often occurs on damp skin, wait half a minute for the face to dry completely before applying any Slowly reduce the drying time until you find the least amount of time your skin needs to avoid a stinging sensation.
  6. After applying topical medication, wait five to 10 minutes more before applying moisturizer, sunscreen or makeup.
  7. Double cleansing is controversial. Some patients with ‘follicular’ rosacea may benefit from mild exfoliants, most commonly with a mix of very low strength sodium sulfacetamide, sulphur & salicylic acid.


Which Ingredients Should I Avoid if I have Sensitive Skin?

Sensitive skin can be prone to dryness, especially during a flare-up. The stronger the cleanser, the harsher the cleansing agent and the more drying the product is. Try and avoid-

  • Cleansers formulated to eliminate acne and excess oil as these often contain chemical exfoliants such as salicylic, lactic and glycolic acid.
  • Drying ingredients to avoid include Sodium Lauryl Sulphate and Sodium Laureth Sulphate, which are commonly found in foaming cleansers. If you do react to multiple cleansers, a patch test by a medical dermatologist can help identify the culprits.

When choosing skincare for sensitive skin, the shorter the ingredients list, the better. Going natural is always a good option, however you should be mindful that not all ingredients are listed on ‘naturopathic skin care lines.’ For patients with dermatitis, eczema, rosacea & general skin sensitivities brands such as Avene, La Roche Posay, Ego & Cetaphil make great cleansers.


How long should I leave cleanser on my face?

If the package directions doesn't specify how long to leave the cleanser on your face, aim for 30 to 60 seconds. Even if your skin is very oily or dirty, cleansers shouldn't stay on your skin longer than two minutes For people with sensitive skin aim for 30 seconds.


How should I gently cleanse / tips and tricks?

Here are some tips regarding ‘how to’,especially important if you suffer from rosacea, & sensitive skin-

Water temperature: Use cool (room temperature) water. Hot water increases the ability of surfactants to penetrate the skin, increasing the removal of lipids, proteins from your skin.

Use less cleanser: The less cleanser that touches your skin, the less damage you’ll get. Start off with a pea size drop & increases as required.

Short contact: The longer the cleanser stays in contact with your skin, the more time it’ll have to penetrate into your skin. Don’t let it stay on your skin for too long- maximum of 2 minutes, shorter the better.

Cleanse less frequently: If you wash your skin with cleanser more than once a day, see if you can cut down. In the morning, if you’ve cleansed sufficiently the night before, you can just splash water on your face and pat it off. Water is also a skin irritant (believe it or not), so also limit plain water washing to twice daily.

Remove surfactants: Wipe-off products (e.g. micellar water, cleansing wipes) contain mild surfactants that can be left on the skin, but it’s still better to remove them. Follow up with moisturiser: Add water, emollients and humectants back into your skin with a moisturiser.

Avoid Chemical Exfoliants: Salicylic, lactic and glycolic acid cleansers can be harsh on sensitive skin. Avoid these ingredients initially however some patients can tolerate short contact low concentrations.


Gentle pressure with physical exfoliants: Pressing too hard on physical exfoliants such as loofah pads,  lots & even brushes (example Clarisonic), can damage your skin. Go easy if you have sensitive skin.


Can I just wash my face with water only?

Is washing your face with soap-cleansers just a hype? No, if you have oily skin or require to remove impurities & grime, you do require a factual cleanser. A “water only wash can be used by some people to avoid dry skin, however too much water can actually irritate your skin. Balance is the key.



Why do dermatologists recommend Cetaphil?

Dermatologists classically have loved the Cetaphil cleansers because they are non-alkaline (pH 6.3-6.8), lipid-free, non-comedogenic, & mild enough for sensitive skin.

Historically I know that the makers of Cetaphil, Galderma, packed this skin care range for patients on Accutane- Oratane- Isotretinoin. The logic behind recommending Cetaphil was probably with good intentions as in many countries these ‘Accutane packs’ were given out FREE of charge (at least in Australia). These allowed dermatologists to concentrate on addressing the finer details of specialist acne management, rather than go into a 5 to 10 minute conversation on the use of cleansers. Of course, patient had their choice of what cleanser they wanted to use. A recommendation takes out a lot of the unknown, which probably made the job a lot easier if skin irritation occurred. Yes, dermatologists are aware of the long ingredient list of Cetaphil, including the multiple potential allergens & irritates.


*I am a procedural dermatologist & not a medical dermatologist, I do not prescribe Cetaphil, nor do I have any links with Galderma (I was on their advisory board for other S4 products). I do not have any option regarding their product line, nor am I interested in the ingredients in Cetaphil. If you have any questions, please direct them to your treating physician or dermatologist.


Why do dermatologists prefer lower pH cleansers?

Your skin pH, which is a measure of acidity-alkalinity, sits around pH 5 (4-6). This means your skin’s natural state is acidic. The majority of foaming cleansers are alkaline which can compromise your skin’s barrier function. Typically for normal skin types we prefer a ‘Low pH Cleanser’ for the following reasons:


  • Typically Non-Drying: Low pH cleansers tend to feature a gel, milk, or cream texture, which tends to be less drying than a foam
  • Better for Those With Eczema: Low pH preserves the lipids within the skin which is better for those who are prone to eczema or dermatitis
  • Protects the Skin's Acid Mantle: The acid top layer of the skin is a thin layer of slightly acidic film made up of fatty acids, sebum,  & copacted cells. This mix forms a protective barrier that maintains skin integrity, protecting the skin from potentially harmful bacteria and viruses.

It is important to note that not everyone should avoid alkaline washes. Higher pH cleansers are more like detergents that clean the skin thoroughly; these are the best in oily & resistant skin, which can withstand dehydration of a cleanser that acts like a surfactant.


How do I know if a cleanser is low pH?

The best way to tell is whether or not the cleanser is pH balanced is to see if it bubbles or foams, which means it’s a high pH cleanser. Look for the words “pH balanced”. These products have been formulated to mimic the skin’s natural pH level, and won’t raise your skin’s pH level.



Davin’s Viewpoint on Facial Cleansers 

Facial cleansing & sunscreens form the basis of skin care- hence why it is vital to get it right from the beginning. It can be perplexing with the amount of products out there, ranging from creams, gels, lotions, oil suspensions in water, through to mits & bars. Double cleansing, as ‘invented’ by the Koreans, is probably a sensible way of removing make up, sunscreen, sebum (natural oils) & impurities. With good facial cleaning it primes the skin, ready for skin care actives such as vitamins, hyaluronic acid, skin care acids & antioxidants to work harder to achieve your goal.

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